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Before the passage of SB 10, Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who's gay, put the marriage debate in Illinois in the context of her personal life, talking about her three children and its implications for them: "Josh, Daniel, and Ethan are watching today. They face those questions about our family, not just on the playground where you might expect it but here in this very building." Gay marriage advocates often say their children live with the shame and stigma of unmarried parents, presumably while their schoolmates—also in two-parent households, in this scenario—are dropped off by married parents.
When I read comments like Cassidy's, I wonder: What era does she live in? Anyone who claims in 2013 to have kids who are actively shamed for having unmarried parents—statistically far more likely to be the case these days—is being hyperbolic. Her words are, of course, the rhetoric of a practiced politician. But they do speak to the deep social conservatism in which gay marriage comes wrapped.
I prefer the term "gay marriage" to "marriage equality," because the latter occludes the fact that the institution many gays and lesbians (but by no means the majority of them) clamor for is in fact embedded in a long history of sexism, misogyny, and racism, which defines people and particularly women and children as objects of possession. Even more importantly, marriage is part of a larger neoliberal enterprise, a greater system of privatization, a state of things where people, increasingly, must enter into private contracts like marriage in order to gain the most basic benefits—like health care, or the ability to decide who can receive their estates, small or large, upon death.
In states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, employees at state universities and other workplaces can no longer place their civil union or domestic partners on their health plans: they have to get married because, the logic goes, since you can get married, you must (it's still unclear whether this will become the case in Illinois). We should consider the economic ramifications of incentivizing marriage for anyone, gay or straight, by way of refusing benefits (like health care and immigration status) to those who won't marry (consider that not marrying is, for many, a political choice). And we need to foreground the economic underside of gay marriage, instead of focusing on its social conventions.
For its supporters, the conversation about gay marriage relies upon emotional and affective points about legislating love and ignores the fact that marriage accrues and disburses economic benefits, and that the ability to gain those depends on your class status. Take Edith Windsor, at the center of the Supreme Court's recent decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Windsor was chosen as the plaintiff in that case because she could be imagined as a gay everywoman, a little old lady rubbing flint stones for warmth in a cold, dank New York apartment, waking up one day to the shocking news that she would have to pay more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes following the death of her spouse.
Is it unfair that a lesbian would have to pay so much when an opposite-sex wife would not have to pay that amount after her husband's death? Sure. Is it unfair that married straight people enjoy certain benefits because of marriage? Of course. Will the ability to marry actually provide average gays and lesbians various kinds of benefits? Definitely. Should those benefits be available to everyone, regardless of their marital status?
It's that last question that never gets asked.
Yasmin Nair is cofounder, with Ryan Conrad, of Against Equality, as well as the volunteer policy director of Gender JUST. She lives in Uptown with her cat, and resolved at the age of eight to never marry.